Jacksonville, Fla. – If you want to know who’s going to win the Florida primary, give me a call Saturday afternoon. I’ll be glad to tell you then. I could tell you now, of course, but then I’d just be blowing smoke along with the rest of the media. This race will break late and break hard — later and harder, possibly, than even the South Carolina primary did.
What I can tell you today is what this election is going to be about. The 2012 Florida primary will be an old-fashioned family feud pitting conservatives against Republicans. It’s a feud with deep, 1964-vintage roots, but it’s not about old grudges misremembered or long-forgotten. Next Tuesday’s vote will be a referendum on what happened here and elsewhere around the nation in 2010.
In that bountiful year, you’ll fondly recall, disgruntled conservatives leapt from the soft shoulders, grabbed the wheel of the party’s wandering bus, and whipped it hard right. The party people were at first outraged — you’ve just cost us the services of Mike Castle, for God’s sake! — before developing a sober (and ephemeral) gratitude for the infusion of conservative energy. Almost immediately following Election Day, however, the systematic restoration of party prerogative began. Messrs. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, who had seemed to be tea-party when tea-party was cool, banked their revolutionary fires; Karl Rove, for a time doubted and (even more painfully) ignored, was reinstated to his architectural role; and the party people quickly selected their candidate for 2012. To avoid any intramural frottage, in fact, they helpfully declared their candidate “inevitable” before a single delegate had been won. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your Inevitable GOP Candidate: a formerly pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-amnesty, pro-individual-mandate, one-term governor of Massachusetts who has stashed part of his unimaginably large paper-shuffling profits — the part that he didn’t stash with Goldman Sachs — in a bank in the Cayman Islands. Who, I ask you, could possibly be more inevitable than he?
It is difficult to convey to NR readers, much less to New York Times readers, just how astonished and annoyed the grassroots activists in Florida are. These are not people who hold party posts or are on Larry Sabato’s Rolodex as potential sources. They are the people who dropped what they were doing in 2010 and dashed off to the aid of their party in its hour of manifest need. They restored order to the public square, imposed clarity on the party message, sent a human wave of self-declared reformers to Tallahassee and Washington, and then said, with a sigh of relief, “There. You guys can take it from here. We’re going home.” To then watch their new heroes acquiesce in the selection (appointment?) of Mitt Romney as their party’s inevitable candidate has been more than many conservative activists can bear. (A typical quote about Romney from a local hyper-activist: “I don’t have the time for him. If he were president, we’d have to mobilize for every appointment, every regulation, every agenda item. He thinks of us the way old man Bush did — as them.”)
These sturdy people, these conservative yeomen, are now voting for Newt Gingrich. Well, to be more precise, they are voting for the idea of Newt Gingrich: They are voting not for a specific candidate, as such, but for the process that produced him. They want to see that process attenuated. They want to hear the arguments refined and developed. They want to match up their man with this historical moment. Their fundamental question reduces to this: Just where is our beloved country in the arc of history? Does the present circumstance call for minor course correction, and thus the nomination of a skilled if incorrigibly establishmentarian manager? Or is it late in the American day when only a risk-embracing, cliché-busting, paradigm-shaking candidate will suffice? Many Florida activists have gravitated to the latter view and have thus embraced Newt as a placeholder who will allow them to participate in the next phase of the process. They support him as a man whose baggage can be left unexamined precisely because he can wave a golden passport at the border guards: It is well known to the authorities that he has committed multiple acts of political revolution before and he seems altogether capable of committing additional such acts in the future. Revolutionary acts, they sense, may be exactly what’s needed in this moment of crisis.